Book Review: ‘Landslide’, by Michael Wolff
Books like this usually explode out of the gate with some news anecdotes and Wolff provides some of these. Trump believed the Democratic Party elders would pull Biden, safe to lose, at the last minute and replace him with a ticket to Andrew Cuomo and Michelle Obama. He played with the idea of using the pandemic as a pretext for postponing the elections indefinitely. The most infamous line in his speech to the opening crowd on January 6 – “we will go all the way to the Capitol” – was an advertisement, not in the text his staff had prepared. But the strength of “Landslide” comes less from these stories and more from a coherent argument that Wolff, in partnership with his sources, makes about how we should understand the period between November 3rd and January 20th. Books quickly produced about events politics do not.
Trump, in these pages, is self-obsessed, deceitful, and administratively incompetent. He has no interest in or understanding of the work of government. He does not read or listen to summaries. He spends a lot of time watching conservative TV networks and talking on the phone with friends. The pandemic puts it at a particular disadvantage; many of the people around him are either sick or afraid to come to work because that would bring about the observance of a Covid disobedience regime that Trump demands. If someone says something he does not want to hear, he marginalizes or fires that person and finds someone else to listen to, who may or may not hold an official position. If Fox News becomes less than fully loyal, it will switch to Newsmax or One America News Network. He lives in a self-healing information environment that carries only a gaze relationship with reality.
Before the belief that the election had been stolen had taken complete control of Trump’s mind, the idea was already there – because he chose to consider stolen all forms of extended access to voting, which tend to favor Democrats. He rejected pleas from his staff to set up a Republican operation to get out of early voting, just as he also rejected pleas to support disguise and social distancing at the height of the pandemic: off-brand. He was quite disorganized, with endless breaks and reshuffles of key players. And during his second conviction trial, Trump was represented by a team of comically incompetent, quarrelsome lawyers he had barely met.
In the early hours of election night, when he was running long before the polls, Trump decided he had won. After it became clear to everyone except him that he had not done so, he empowered a team of alternative reality counselors, led by Rudy Giuliani and including people whom Giuliani also considered unacceptable there, such as Sidney Powell, independent lawyer, and Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, and he embraced every conspiracy theory and strategic fantasy how it could change the outcome. According to Trump, as Wolff says, the election is roughly similar to the loan due dates on his real estate business – a place to start negotiations. Because he divides people into two categories, strong and weak, and because he has deep cynicism of an unprincipled person, he chose to believe that he was not the first presidential candidate to deny the result, only the first to be manly enough to challenge a typically corrupt outcome.
No one holding official power in the White House or the Republican Party – in particular, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell – took Trump’s contempt seriously, so the horrific events of January 6 came as a surprise, perhaps even to Trump himself. The various rallies that day were organized by independent right-wing political entrepreneurs with businesses to promote, not by the White House, and it was not yet clear to most Republicans in Washington how Trump followers had accepted his insistence that the election had has been stolen. Almost no one in the White House was actively trying to persuade members of Congress to vote on the electoral challenges that lay ahead of them on January 6th.